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Hidden figures

betteroffted-malcolm-barrett.jpgIn the last half of this year, I've become aware of one of the less obvious casualties of the decline in local journalism: talking newspapers.

Probably most people don't know these exist; I certainly didn't. But around the UK there is a string of these things, which exist to give blind and visually impaired people access to their local newspaper.

This is the kind of thing the existence of the internet tends to lead us to dismiss as no longer necessary. Surely screen readers and the web have provided such access? But as I learned years ago, wandering the web with a screen reader is not easy. The Talking Newspapers provides uninterrupted content; screen readers can't always distinguish between content, navigational aids, and other clutter. As information density goes, the Talking Newspaper wins.

The Richmond one, which began in 1979, works like this: four people meet on a Friday evening and spread out copies of the Richmond and Twickenham Times. They look over the paper and share out the stories. Then they take turns reading them out into microphones and a recorder, which runs specific software for this sort of purpose. A production engineer oversees the recording. Later, others oversee the business of assembling the files and making copies onto USB sticks. Separately, a couple of administrators extract returned sticks from their envelopes and prepare envelopes to send out the new batch. (They do modern times, too, and you can download the output from the website.)

Here's the thing: The Richmond and Twickenham Times is about half the size it was ten years ago, and it's not getting any bigger. A single edition no longer fills enough space.

The team are coping by getting permission to use some material from the BBC, and there are some obvious untapped sources of content in the form of newsletters and articles from local churches, historical societies, arts groups, and that glossy magazine that plonks through the door that you don't know what it's for that's mostly advertising and the printed equivalent of infomercials but there's probably an article or two per issue that's usable.

To those of us who spend our time mulling the doings of largely automated services that count their users by the billion, a labor-intensive service like this that counts them in dozens seems like a rounding error. Surely it's the wrong scale for the 21st century? And for a huge city like London? Yet Europe's first megacity, though it's generally treated in the media as an amorphous whole, in reality is made up of quite distinct neighborhoods. The area surrounding Richmond is made up of many formerly separate small towns, each with its own town center, shops, and community life. What's left of newspapers and newsletters still provides connective tissue within these subcommunities

To some extent, this is a story about older people and isolation. When lessening physical ability shrinks your world, remaining connected in other ways rises in importance. A friend who has long worked on local newspapers tells me their older readers are their most dedicated - although by and large most advertisers don't care much about them. It's not easy to develop and learn new sources of connection after reading has become difficult; ideally, you need to prepare in advance, but no one does.

At the other end of the scale, this week Pro Publica caught Facebook and a bunch of other companies (including Amazon and Verizon) in a new form of age discrimination: using Facebook's advertising platform to target job ads at specific age groups. Under present US, UK, and EU law, a newspaper ad could never say, "Must be 25 to 36", but on Facebook it doesn't need to. All an advertiser has to do is tick the appropriate boxes, and anyone outside of the desired age group simply won't ever see the ad.

It's fair to say that one of the difficulties with new technology is that you just don't know how people are going to use it to bypass the law. However, Facebook's reply to this claim has been to compare the practice to running ads in magazines that target specific age groups, and argue that age-based targeting for recruitment ads is "standard industry practice". Yet there is an obvious difference: anyone can pick up a magazine and read it whether they fit the target demographic or not, but on Facebook you can only see what the system decides to show you. Be 37, and that job does not exist in your reality.

The company's response brings to mind the TV show Better Off Ted and the dysfunctional company in which it is set, Veridian Dynamics. Specifically, the moment in Season 1 episode 4, "Racial Sensitivity", when Veronica (Portia di Rossi) explains to Ted (Jay Harrington) why the building control system, which automates everything from lights and water fountains to elevators, lighting, and doors by responding to reflections of light off the skin, is not racist. "The company's position is that it's actually the opposite of racist because it's not targeting black people, it's just ignoring them."

Illustrations: Malcolm Barrett, trying to be seen by the motion sensors in Better Off Ted.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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